- Response: Strategic Presentism or Partisan Knowledges?
“And in this century in this nineteenth century anything could be a bother and was.”Gertrude Stein, “Lecture One” (12)
With the publication of their manifesto in 2015, the V21 Collective ignited a lively and stimulating debate within Victorian studies. Its recent intervention—a series of position papers delivered at the 2016 Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies (INCS) conference and reprinted in this journal—raises a number of important questions about the role of Victorian studies in the current moment. In addition, and to its credit, the V21 Collective does not simply offer a diagnosis of our current ills; it also proposes a remedy in the form of “strategic presentism.” Although our response necessarily focuses on areas of disagreement, we commend the V21 Collective for initiating the discussion. We trust that our response will be accepted as a collegial contribution to what we hope will be an ongoing debate.
One thing we do share with the V21 Collective is its contention that the discussion of the future of Victorian studies must be situated in the context of neoliberalism’s assault on the global body politic and the academy’s response to this assault, as well as to developments within our own field. Identifying the [End Page 117] precise nature of the interrelationship between these various sites will play an important role in formulating any strategic response. It is also clearly beyond the scope of a two-thousand-word response. Yet there is one aspect of the current situation that ought to frame our responses, and that is the humble recognition that the decisive struggles will occur beyond not just our discipline but also our institutions. We will not defeat neoliberalism with literary theory. However, we can draw inspiration from our subject area. Like the working class of nineteenth-century Britain, we should take practical actions like unionizing, actively supporting adjuncts, fighting for post-docs and other support for students having a tough time on the job market, gathering allies from across the disciplines to save ourselves from extinction, and finding ways of making our knowledge useful to those groups challenging neoliberalism in the world beyond the academy.
We agree, then, with our V21 colleagues that the future shape of Victorian studies will be determined by our collective response to neoliberalism. But what of their preferred response—the adoption of “strategic presentism” as both theoretical frame and working method? Put simply, “strategic presentism” is a call for our work to be relevant to the present. At first sight, this seems unobjectionable; do any of us cultivate irrelevance in our professional lives? However, to focus on the present as a way of selling ourselves carries the risk of surrendering to neoliberalism. For, as Nathan K. Hensley acknowledges: “The neoliberal administrative rationality that now controls all of our institutions . . . is fundamentally presentist in orientation and economistic in its logic” (114). Before we agree on “relevance,” we need to ask relevant to what and to whom? To students? To administrators? To capital? To labor? The “what-whom” question is vital, because it foregrounds the always necessary issue of politics. The V21 Collective presents “strategic presentism” as a neutral methodology that seems infinitely malleable: it can be Marxist, ecological, descriptive, and so on. Fredric Jameson is regularly invoked in these essays, but we suspect he would quail at this accommodation. Relevance can never be value-free. For example, we might conceivably teach Victorian literature as an exercise in how best to maintain the myriad forms of oppression that disfigured the Victorian body politic and that continue to maim our own. We are sure this would horrify our colleagues at V21, but it would be a form of relevance, and it is certainly one way that our literature has been used.
There is a further, and more pernicious, problem with “relevance.” The relevance that holds sway in the corporatized classroom is a particularly degraded [End Page 118] form of instrumental reason, which is anathema to its critical counterpart. As academics we can neither define nor decide what counts as “relevant”: those decisions are made elsewhere. As intellectual workers, our ethical responsibility is to follow...